The recent news of the United States’ removal of Nigeria from its religious freedom blacklist is quite cheering, particularly for the President Muhammadu Buhari government, which has the misfortune of inheriting a polity that was deeply divided along ethno-religious fault-lines that had heightened the insecurity, including the Boko Haram insurgency, across the country.
The United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who made the announcement a forthnight ago, shortly before his visit to Nigeria, said countries on the blacklist are: “Burma, the People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, the DPRK, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.”
They are categorised as Countries of Particular Concern for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. We will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses.”
Blinken said the United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organisations, and members of religious communities to advance religious freedom around the world and address the plight of individuals and communities facing abuse, harassment, and discrimination on account of what they believe, or what they do not believe.”
Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua were placed on a watch list. The US Secretary of State announced the designation of “al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin, and the Taliban as Entities of Particular Concern.”
Blinken, however, noted that the United States will continue to impose restrictions on countries whose governments deny citizens of freedom to religion. “In far too many places around the world, we continue to see governments harass, arrest, threaten, jail, and kill individuals simply for seeking to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs”.
He noted that the challenges to religious freedom in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched. “They exist in every country. They demand sustained global commitment from all who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo. They require the international community’s urgent attention”.
Although, there are mixed reactions to the US gesture, the federal government expressed appreciation to the United States of America for removing the name of Nigeria from the list of countries that violate religious freedom.
President Buhari and the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, expressed the nation’s appreciation to the US government at different fora. The president spoke while hosting the U.S Secretary of State at Aso Rock in Abuja, and the minister expressed government’s appreciation in a statement in Paris, France.
In a statement in Paris, France, by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Segun Adeyemi, the minister maintained that Nigeria does not engage in religious freedom violations or religious persecution. “We will continue to ensure that every Nigerian has the freedom to practise his or her own chosen religion or belief without hindrance”.
However, some Christian leaders in Nigeria, who alleged that Christian rights and freedom to worship were still infringed upon in some parts of the country, have criticised the US action. According to them, the US did not get genuine information before making that decision, as to date, there arre cases of violation of religious freedom in Nigeria.
But some Muslim leaders told the BBC Hausa that the development deserved commendation as it’s appropriate because, authoritatively, cases of violation of religious freedom due to a person’s religious ideology are rare.
Reverend Murtala Mati Dangora, Vice Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Kano state, said Christians in some parts of the country are still faced with issues of violation of their religious freedom, especially when it comes to the building of churches.
On his part, a Muslim leader and member of a committee on inter-religious harmony, Muhammad Nurul Khaleed, said looking at steps taken by the federal government, cases of violation of religious freedom or impunity against certain groups of believers are not always frequent.
The Nigerian government has said that enlisting Nigeria among countries that are violating religious freedom, initially, was due to the mischief of those seeking the break-up of Nigeria because of the Boko Haram crisis.
The government said it was the problems associated with the Boko Haram crisis that such elements harped on to enlist Nigeria, saying the attacks of insurgents were only directed on the Christians.
Malam Garba Shehu, presidential spokesperson, said it is widely known that the Boko Haram attack never spared the Muslims or the Christians. He said the government has never remained aloof or complacent in taking measures against it.
However, the religious leaders are of the view that the federal government has a long way to go in ensuring that there is absolute religious freedom, especially at the state level.
Blueprint commends the gesture of the United States government towards Nigeria. It is, however, pertinent to advise the Nigerian government to avoid anything that will make the country to be reenlisted in the notorious blacklist of religiously intolerant nations. By virtue of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, Nigeria is a secular state. This constitutional provision, which guarantees freedom of worship to all Nigerians, is sacrosanct and must be upheld by government at all levels.